Tea Time: How to Grow Tea Plants at Home (And Why You Should!)
More people appreciate the health value of growing their own food and take a great deal of satisfaction in the process. It is not uncommon to know someone who is growing their own fruits and vegetables in a home garden, or someone growing a herb garden indoors or outdoors. There is one “crop” more people are discovering however, which also has mental and emotional benefits. It is a plant gaining popularity for a variety of reasons, including almost miraculous health benefits. This plant is tea.
Most think of tea as an alternative to coffee. It can be consumed in a variety of ways. Tea can be prepared hot or as an iced beverage. Like its counterpart, it is enjoyed both caffeinated and decaffeinated and sweetened or unsweetened. Most, however, are unaware of the tremendous health benefits inherent in tea.
In this guide, we will take a comprehensive look at tea and how you can grow it at home. We'll examine in what type of soil tea grows best and the various ways tea can be grown. We'll explore the main types of tea grown and how to brew and store them properly. Finally, we'll look at the amazing health benefits of tea and why you might want to consider growing tea at home.
Growing your own tea can be an enjoyable hobby, which can also pay you back with a refreshing, healthy beverage. It may be easier than you think. There is quite a bit to know, however, before getting started.
Table of Contents
- Growing and Brewing Different Types of Tea at Home
- The Tea Production Process
- How to Brew Tea
- Storing Tea
- Why Grow Tea at Home
- Getting Started
Growing and Brewing Different Types of Tea at Home
There are two broad categories of teas. There are true teas, which are grown from two types of tea plants, Camellia assamica, found mainly in Africa and Southern China, and a smaller leaf, Camellia sinensis, which can also be grown in North America. The other general type of tea is herbal tea, which is tea made from a wide variety of herbs.
For those living in the Midwest or South in Growing Zone 8 or warmer, a large variety of teas can be grown and harvested from outdoor gardens. In colder climates or when the weather turns cold, tea can be grown in pots indoors. The key is the soil.
In this portion of our guide, we will take our first look at the various ways tea can be grown. The story of how to grow your own tea at home will begin to unfold, and the wide variety and options will start to become apparent. While tea has historically been a major crop in both China and Africa, you just may find it simple to grow in your own backyard.
Like virtually everything else in the plant world, how to grow tea starts with the soil and the seeds. These are the foundations of growing tea at home.
While tea can be grown in a variety of soils, there are some characteristics a soil should have to provide the optimum environment. True tea, for example, will not grow well in stagnant water. Therefore, a loose soil - or even slightly sandy soil - is preferred. Any porous, loam soil will do as long as it is slightly acidic and does not contain too much calcium.
When growing plants like Camellia sinensis in a planter or pot, adding some sphagnum moss to the soil mixture can be beneficial.
The keys to an optimum soil for growing true tea is:
- A loose, porous, even slightly sandy soil
- Slightly acidic soil
- Soil containing a low level of calcium
This is relatively easy when growing tea in pots or planters. It may take a trip to your big box store's gardening center to work more porous material into the ground, which may initially be ideal. Whatever more porous material or soil you choose, however, remember slightly acidic is good and calcium is bad for growing tea.
Once you are confident you have soil conducive for growing tea, it is on to deciding the type of tea you ultimately want to make. You can choose from true tea or a variety of teas from roots, fruits, flowers, and herbs.
This is the most popular tea plant for producing caffeinated true tea. There is both large- and small-leaf Camellia plants used to make teas. The large leaf variety, Camellia assamica, is what comes to mind when thinking about the large caravans of tea being toted across China. This variety grows best in Africa and Southern China, while the small leaf Camellia sinensis is what is grown in outdoor gardens in North America. The plant can also be grown indoors when planted in a loam soil. This plant will reward you in the fall, as it grows into a pleasant-smelling ornamental and will stay at a manageable 3 to 6 feet when pruned properly.
The leaves used to make tea have serrated edges similar to those of a bay leaf. While the plant itself is a bush, if not properly pruned, it can soon resemble a tree. Camellia sinensis can be grown from seeds or a seedling and can take three years to produce useable leaves. It grows best in slightly acidic soil low in calcium. The soil should be slightly sandy.
Leaves and buds should be picked when young and can be crushed between your hands or using a mortar and pestle. Further “processing” and brewing will depend on whether you desire green, black, white or oolong tea. Along with Camellia sinensis, there are a variety of other plants and plant parts used in making teas.
Many people confuse coriander and cilantro when in fact they are two herbs from the same plant. Cilantro is the leaves from the coriander plant and coriander is considered the entire plant. Aside from cilantro, the leaves are also known as Chinese parsley, Mexican parsley, fresh coriander, and coriander leaves. The leaves tend to be thicker at the bottom of the plant and lighter and more feathery at the top. The seeds of the plant are referred to as coriander seeds and are round and hard. If you don't like the flavor of cilantro, no worries. The seeds and the leaves have two distinct flavors.
Coriander can be grown from seeds but often is bought in starter plants. It will grow well in a soil containing lots of organic material. Coriander grows best in cooler temps, and while it can handle sun in the spring and fall, it will not tolerate direct sun in the heat of summer. It is an annual, which will produce volumes of seeds in the fall. One can expect the plant to seed in about 100 days. At maturity, it will grow 6 to 10 inches high and a similar size in width and depth.
In the fall, seeds can be harvested either green or dried. Green seeds will stay fresh for several weeks when refrigerated. They can also be frozen to keep their fresher taste longer. Should you decide to let them mature and brown, cut off and store the entire seed head in a paper bag. In time, the seeds will loosen and separate. They can then be stored in an airtight container.
Seeds should be ground before brewing as a hot tea. Add ground coriander seeds to boiling water or pour boiling water over some coriander seeds. Allow steeping for five minutes and strain the tea into a cup and enjoy. Some prefer just a hint of honey added to their coriander tea. This is one of the versatile aspects of tea in that sweeteners or even milk can be added to smooth out the flavor.
Tea from coriander seed is said to assist digestion and has been used to treat ailments such as food poisoning.
Rose hips are actually a berry, and they grow just about anywhere. They are the seed pods of wild roses and can produce teas ranging from bland to super sweet. They most frequently have small, hair-like growths on their bottoms, the remnants of the flowers that once grew in this position. The teas they produce are all rich in Vitamins A, C and E. In the wild, they are a favorite of bears and birds who enjoy their sweet taste.
They can be recognized in the wild by their shape and color. Garden roses will have rose hips as well, but those should never be used for teas if they have been sprayed with any chemicals. Harvesting rose hips will take heavy gloves due to the thorns, which are abundant on the plants.
Rose hips are best grown at home from potted rose shrubs producing rose hips. Rose hips can be best grown in sunny areas with lots of sunshine. They will perform well when planted in fertile soil that drains well. Since you will be consuming tea made from rose hips, you will want to only use organic material in the care of your plants.
Rose hip tea can be made from either dried or fresh rose hips, and the more rose hips used, the stronger the tea. There is no bitter flavor with rose hip tea, as it contains no caffeine. Tea can be made by crushing or mashing rose hips and “cooking” them in water of about 190 degrees. Strain the tea and add sugar or honey to sweeten to taste.
Many are surprised to learn rose hips have about 20 times as much Vitamin C as do oranges. This means rose hip tea can give the immune system a tremendous boost.
Lavender has long been used to calm the nerves and enhance moods. It is used frequently in aromatherapy and has more recently enjoyed popularity for use in teas to provide similar benefits. Its calming effect makes it a popular evening beverage.
Lavender tea is made from the flowers of the lavender plant, usually a light violet in color. The flowers contain camphor, a popular element in teas, which bring it its minty, crisp, flowery aroma. Along with elevating mood, lavender tea helps boost the immune system through heavy concentrations of calcium, amino acids, and vitamins A and C. While it has a sweet flavor, it has zero calories.
Some will find growing lavender surprisingly simple. It can be grown in either pots or in a garden. The soil needs to be well-draining and the plants should get plenty of sunshine. It is best to purchase lavender plants that have been started. Plant them in a sunny area of a garden. Pay attention to keep the soil moist while it establishes roots in the ground. Other than that, a simple pruning each spring will keep your plants healthy and growing.
The lavender buds are used for making teas and they can be used fresh or dried. The plant blooms from June through August and will generally reach a height of about 2 to 3 feet. It will take about two teaspoons of fresh buds to make an 8-ounce cup of tea and about one tablespoon of dried leaves to make a similar amount. Place the buds in a tea ball or similar container and let steep in hot water for about 10 minutes. Feel free to experiment by adding berries, chamomile or mint for additional flavor sensations.
Along with calming qualities, lavender tea may also help users fight colds and coughs and can serve to aid upset stomachs.
Most view dandelions as a spring lawn nuisance, but what is below the surface is where the dandelion holds most of its power. Tea made from the roots of dandelions is believed to have almost miraculous properties. The dandelion root has shown to be a powerful detoxifier and antioxidant. Some studies have shown it to reduce cancer tumors. It is said to reduce the toxic load on the human body, giving our natural immune system more energy to recover from illness.
There has been some discussion on when is the best time to harvest the dandelion root. Some believe it is in the fall when the roots are a bit sweeter. Others favor the spring. Most agree, however, the medicinal qualities of the dandelion root are reduced in the summer when roots are providing much of its nutrients to the leaves and flowers. Dandelion roots contain beneficial microbes believed to help the immune system and promote clarity of thought.
The best way to harvest dandelion root is with a digging fork used about 3 inches from around the crown of the plant. By using your free hand and pulling up on the leaves, use the fork to pry up the root system.
The plant should be cut from the top of the roots. The plant itself can be used in salads and tinctures. Rinse the roots in cold water removing the soil. Use a vegetable brush or similar item to scrub the roots clean. Cut the roots into slices of about 1/4-inch long, trying your best to create pieces of similar sizes. Dry the pieces in an oven or a dehydrator if you have one. Once the pieces are dried and crisp, they can be stored for up to a year in a cool, dry place.
Many people rely on dandelion root tea to detoxify their bodies and promote liver health. It can be made by boiling 2 teaspoons of the root in 2 cups of water for about 15 minutes. Strain the liquid and pour it into a cup for serving.
Along with boosting the immune system, dandelion root tea detoxifies the liver, reduces water weight and helps with urinary tract infections.
The Tea Production Process
The tea production process will vary according to the types of tea being produced. The process is what gives the various teas their distinctive flavor. The production process for green tea, for example, is different from the process of black and oolong tea, white tea and rooibos. While true teas start with the same leaves, a key determining factor is the amount of oxygen, or oxidation, the leaves get in the process.
In this section, we'll take a look at the various forms of tea and the specific production processes that make each unique.
Once you've planted and watched your plants mature, it is time for harvest. The production process is a critical component in creating the tea or teas that will become a favorite for you and your family.
Green tea is usually green or slightly yellow in color and delivers a flavor ranging from somewhat nutty to slightly grassy. It is made from smaller, new-growth leaves, which are harvested twice annually from the tops of the Camellia sinensis bushes. These harvests, or flushes, occur during spring and summer. These harvests also serve to prune the bushes and promote thicker, new growth.
Processing green tea involves three steps.
- Steaming – Green teas maintain their grassy, fresh flavors because oxidation is minimized. This is done by steaming the leaves or pan-firing them. This combination of hot, humid air allows the leaves to develop flavors without oxidation.
- Rolling – The leaves are then rolled or shaped into balls or nuggets. These rolled shapes should also be kept from oxidizing, preserving not only the leaves' green or yellow color, but in maintaining their earthy flavors.
- Drying – The leaves are then sorted by size and dried for brewing.
The flavor profile can be adjusted for green tea by repeating steps 2 and 3 above. Green tea is exceptionally healthy and is popular across the globe.
Black and Oolong
Black tea is the most popular of breakfast teas. It is very dark and has almost a coffee-like flavor. Oolong tea is lighter than black tea, but both have similar production processes. The biggest difference between the production processes for each is the length of time for oxidizing the leaves.
For both oolong and black tea, leaves are first withered, generally in direct sunlight. They are then rolled to release enzymes and moisture. For oolong tea, leaves are rolled into various shapes. For black tea, the shape is less relevant. In fact, some black teas will be chopped, as in those used in commercially produced tea bags.
The production process between oolong and black teas separates further when it comes to oxidation. Oolong teas are distinguished by moisture levels ranging from 8% to 80%. Once leaves reach these predetermined levels, they are then dried. For black tea, the leaves are spread out and allowed to fully oxidize in a cool and humid environment. When the leaves turn dark brown, they are then ready for drying. They can be dried in direct sunlight or in a warm oven.
White tea undergoes minimal processing. The light processing results in a lighter color and flavor than other teas. It also maintains more of the natural chemical compounds of the tea.
To process white tea, leaves are first withered either in direct sunlight or in a shaded area for up to 72 hours. The leaves are then simply dried to stop the oxidation process. Leaves are dried either using a steaming process or through hot blasts of air.
Black tea is dark and strong while white tea is light and considered delicate. These two perhaps best demonstrate the wide diversity of textures and flavors available in teas.
Rooibos tea (sometimes called red tea) is produced from the Aspalathus linearis plant from the African continent. It is a shrub-like plant and can grow up to 6 feet tall. The thin, needle-like leaves and small stems are what is harvested to produce rooibos tea once they are fermented and dried. This is a hardy bush that can survive a light frost.
Leaves and fine stems should be ready for harvesting after about 18 months. Chop and pile the leaves and small stems, and allow them to ferment in a small pile. Once the pile turns a dark red, it can be spread out and the leaves allowed to dry.
Rooibos tea has a smooth taste described as nutty and even woody. Because it is grown from a plant differing from black, white or green tea, it has fewer tannins, which contribute to the slightly bitter taste of other teas. It is a caffeine-free alternative to black tea. Many add additional flavor to rooibos tea with vanilla, lemon or ginger. While studies of this West African plant have so far been limited, it shows promising health benefits. It is said to help those with Type II Diabetes and contains powerful antioxidants.
How to Brew Tea
The brewing process can vary almost as much as the choices you have in teas available. Brewing is one of the many variables that can be adjusted to bring out the perfect flavor for every tea and individual. The equipment needed for brewing is minimal, involving some form of infuser and a teapot.
At the minimum, tea should be brewed for a minute at 170 degrees. Different teas, however, will respond better to hotter temperatures and longer brew times. Longer brewing times can tend to make teas a bit more bitter and can be adjusted for personal taste.
As a general rule of thumb, black and herbal loose-leaf teas should be brewed using 1 to 2 teaspoons for each 8 oz. cup. Teas should be brewed from 3 to 5 minutes at temperatures ranging from 190 to 200 degrees.
White and green teas should be brewed using 1 to 2 teaspoons of loose-leaf tea in 8 oz. of water at 170 to 180 degrees. Green tea should be brewed for 1 to 3 minutes and white tea for 3 to 4 minutes. One to 2 teaspoons of oolong tea should be brewed for 3 to 5 minutes at 170 to 180 degrees.
Steeping a tea for a longer period will not make it stronger. In the case of herbal teas, in fact, it may only serve to make the tea more bitter. The way to get a strong tea is to simply use more tea.
Spring or aerated water works best when making tea. Avoid using hot tap water, and instead, use cold water that has been running and filled with oxygen. This is why you shouldn't bring water to a rolling boil when making tea. Don't be afraid to experiment with steeping time and temps. You may also want to experiment with various infusers or tea balls to fit your style.
If you are interested in brewing iced tea, plan on using twice the amount of tea as with hot tea. This will maintain the flavor, even after adding ice. Start with at least 2 tea bags or 2 teaspoons of loose-leaf tea for every 8 ounces of iced tea you wish to make. Fill your glass or pitcher about half-way with hot water and allow steeping for about 4 or 5 minutes. Finish filling the glass or pitcher with cold water, remove the tea or bags and pour over ice. If you prefer sweet tea, add sugar, honey, or agave.
There are a variety of containers used to place tea leaves in to minimize straining. Tea infusers, tea balls, and tea bags are all options.
Once you have taken the time to grow and process your tea, you will want to maintain the integrity of its flavor for as long as possible. This involves storing it properly.
There are two main enemies of tea. The first is moisture, and the second is strong odors. Moisture degrades tea and can even lead to mold. Strong odors can contaminate the desired flavor of loose tea leaves, which may make your kitchen or pantry a poor place to store tea. Instead, you may wish to store tea in a more odor-neutral room, such as a living area, office or closet.
You will want to keep teas organized, and when experimenting and growing your own teas, keeping notes can be invaluable. This will help you make adjustments when creating your ultimate tea flavors.
Keep in mind, even properly stored teas have a shelf life and various teas have slightly different storage needs.
Because freshness is key in green and oolong teas, they have the shortest shelf life. They will begin to lose flavor after 4 to 6 months after harvesting. Keep green and oolong tea away from sunlight. This can make glass less than an optimum choice for storing green tea. Heat will also degrade the flavor of oolong and green tea. A good option for storing green tea are vacuum-sealed containers. If you are storing in a sealed package or bag, remove as much air as possible from the package when storing tea. Green tea well sealed in a vacuum environment can maintain its flavor for up to a year when stored in a freezer.
White and black teas have a much longer storage life, lasting up to two years. There are some aficionados who enjoy aged teas kept much longer. You will still want to avoid air, moisture, and strong smells when storing these teas.
It is helpful to keep in mind while teas can be stored for significant periods, most tea drinkers find fresher teas simply taste better. If you have hit the mark with a tea you have harvested, don't be afraid to enjoy it when it is freshest.
Why Grow Tea at Home
Why should you consider growing your own tea at home? First, it is a rewarding hobby. Growing indoor plants or maintaining an outdoor garden has psychological and physical health benefits. You can track your plants from seed or seedling to the cup. Growing your own tea also provides you with the reward of a tasty hot or cold beverage. It only takes a few special tools or little equipment and is inexpensive to get involved in the activity.
Perhaps the biggest part of growing your own tea is the health benefits. While many teas share similar health benefits, many varieties have unique qualities. In this section, we'll address both the health benefits of gardening and of the teas themselves.
Health Benefits of Gardening
Gardening of all types has been shown to have direct benefits to the grower's mental and physical health. These benefits range from improving moods to reducing the risks of heart attacks. Gardening provides a tremendous vehicle for stress relief. It provides a sense of solitude and working directly with nature. It takes a nurturing attitude, it can't be rushed, and the results can be calming.
Gardening can help our sense of worth and self-esteem. There is something uniquely rewarding about growing a plant from a seed or seedling and watching it grow and blossom. It makes us feel good when we harvest the fruits of our labors and enjoy them either for their beauty or flavors.
Routine gardening tasks like planting, weeding and pruning can help get us up and about from our chairs, even if it is for just 20 or 30 minutes per day. This can lower our blood pressure and improve mobility, no matter what our current physical condition may be.
Studies have linked gardening to a reduction in the risk of dementia. Gardening can improve our social networks and engage with like-minded people. It can improve our mental sharpness and keeps us learning. It can even improve depression and boost mental health.
Growing tea, in particular, has the additional benefit of rewarding us with refreshing and healthy beverages. These beverages themselves have their own health benefits most growers appreciate. Many growers will choose the type of tea they wish to produce based on their own personal health concerns.
Health Benefits of Tea
For centuries, tea has not only served as a tasty, refreshing beverage, but has been consumed for its many and varied health benefits. The mere act of enjoying a hot tea in the morning or a refreshing iced tea on a hot afternoon is calming. On a very basic level, tea provides liquid for our bodies, but the benefits have been shown to extend far beyond these basics.
Green teas in particular are known for containing large amounts of polyphenols and is the only type of tea to contain catechin. Some refer to green tea as the healthiest beverage on earth. It is packed with nutrients and antioxidants and has been shown to reduce inflammation and may even reduce certain types of cancer. Green tea can improve brain function and enhance physical conditioning. It is no wonder so many speak so highly of drinking green tea and partake in it daily.
Black tea has antioxidants and has been shown to improve heart health. It may lower LDL Cholesterol and may reduce harmful bacteria in the gut. Black tea may reduce high blood pressure and the risk of a stroke. It may also lower the risk of Type II Diabetes by lowering blood sugar levels. Some studies indicate it may reduce the risk of some cancers.
As the least processed of teas, white tea has bundles of antioxidants. While most teas have the ability to manage weight, white tea is particularly helpful in maintaining or losing weight. It is a heart-healthy beverage and may even improve focus. White tea can even protect teeth from bacteria.
Rooibos or red tea is packed with antioxidants. Like other teas, it may reduce the risk of some cancers, be beneficial to those with Type II Diabetes and improve heart health. While studies of this African-grown plant have been limited, they appear to fall in line similarly with other teas, including lowering the risk of cancer.
While oolong tea represents only 2% of all teas, it too has shown health benefits. These include heart-health benefits and benefits to those with diabetes.
Herbal teas, like chamomile tea, have specific health benefits like improving sleep quality. It can improve digestive health, lower the risk of heart disease and may reduce the risk of cancer. Many herbal teas have a soothing effect and can be calming.
The list of health benefits related to the variety of available teas is long and compelling. Improving your mental and physical health is a significant reason to get involved in growing your own teas at home.
People have come to enjoy growing their own teas, much like others have learned to brew their own craft beers or make their own homemade wines. It provides an opportunity to be creative, expand knowledge and become involved in nature. It can pay off with an enjoyable final product, one that may even be unique to you.
Unlike coffee, which requires very specific growing conditions, teas are much more hardy and versatile. Along with true teas, there is an almost endless list of herbal teas that can be blended for a tremendous variety of flavors and health benefits. Combining true teas with herbal teas takes the lid off the number of designer teas you can create. This versatility allows you to choose hot or cold beverages and even those with or without caffeine. You can create blends to fit your unique tastes or to address your own health concerns.
Getting started is as easy as acquiring some simple gardening tools and even simpler tea processing and brewing equipment. Once you are harvesting, you'll only need a proper storage system and the ability to take good notes. These notes will serve as your roadmap to creating a tea enjoyable for you. Of course, a teapot, infuser and a favorite cup will also come in handy.
Growing your own tea can pay benefits to you and your family for years to come. It is a refreshing, rewarding hobby, which can maintain and even improve your health. Perhaps it's tea time for you and your family. Keep in mind, if you find yourself looking for quality tea and don't have the time or resources to grow your own, you can get great blends of tea online.